It started in Sandymount

Sat, Apr 28, 2012, 01:00

FICTION: MAEVE BINCHYreviews This Is How It Ends By Kathleen MacMahon Sphere, 400pp. £14.99

IT’S LOW TIDE at Sandymount Strand, on Dublin Bay, and the beach is deserted apart from Addie Murphy and her little dog, Lola, who run there every day, no matter what the weather does. Addie feels free to sing at the top of her voice, and Lola digs and scrabbles in the sand for something that isn’t there. Behind Howth Head the planes come out of the clouds and begin their gentle glide towards Dublin Airport.

On one of these planes is Bruno Boylan, an Irish-American returning to make a long- promised but often postponed first visit to the land of his ancestors. This is their love story.

They are both complicated people, bruised rather than damaged by life, both of them early victims of the recession.

Bruno had been escorted out of the Lehman Brothers building in New York, past the jostling crowds on the sidewalk and the cops saying, “There’s nothing to see here, youre not going to see anyone famous. Just folks who have lost their jobs.”

Addie, an architect, had seen her career end and business dry up the day the music of the construction industry died. There was no work for her now. And as for designing swimming pools, which was her passion, better not even think about it.

Before they even meet each other we hope they will get on well together. They don’t appear on the surface to be the kind of match that intensive research by a dating site would come up with, yet they share a sort of quirky take on the world that might make them suitable for one another.

Bruno is restless and irritated that his Irish cousins haven’t responded to his courteous overtures about meeting during his hunt for his family roots. Addie and her irascible father, Hugh, are annoyed to be bothered by Irish-Americans whom they regard as noisy and loudly dressed and a race apart.

So now the scene is well prepared for their meeting in this very satisfying story of people who are easy to believe in and hard to forget. Kathleen MacMahon writes with a confidence and ease and with an unerring sense of timing.

Just as you want to know something about Bruno’s backstory, up it comes, the details of his previous marriages and how they ended. About 10 seconds after wondering what has happened to Della, Addie’s sister and soulmate, she and her family come on stage. As soon as you think that someone should give Hugh, the maddening and bad-tempered father, a serious boot up the backside, rather than sympathy and attention, he does something endearing and pathetic.

There are no cardboard characters here; everyone is three-dimensional and presented with their flaws well in evidence. They may annoy you from time to time, but then isn’t that what happens in real life too?

It is already well known that this first novel was the runaway success of last year’s London Book Fair, where a publisher paid out £600,000 (€730,000) for a two-book deal. These days it is staggering to have written a fiction debut that makes hard-nosed and economically strapped publishers offer a really serious advance. When the end of the book as we know it is being foretold, and when electronic media seem to be taking over from bookshops, it needs to be something special to make the publishing trade take the risk of parting with this kind of money. The men and women who select the fiction titles for each season have been sending out such pessimistic signals to writers that this vote of confidence in an unknown writer is all the more exceptional.

But then MacMahon, although she may be a first-time novelist, is already an established radio journalist. She knows what people are interested in and how to pin down her story, placing it in a very definite time and place.

The time is the run-up to the Obama-McCain election, in 2008; the place is middle-class Dublin. The issue is that if Obama wins, Bruno will go back to the US; if he doesn’t, then Bruno will stay in Ireland. So it’s a case of mixed feelings.

There are very good touches reminding us of how we never believed that the recession was going to be as bad as it was. “Some would say that when they heard Waterford Crystal was gone that was when they knew it was all over. Other people would say that it was the thought of Dell pulling out that was the death knell.”

As well as being the one big good-news story in the publishing industry, this book will be a great word-of-mouth success. It would be wrong even to hint in this review how the love story develops, because to do so would give away the entirely unexpected train of events that is set in motion when two distant cousins meet unwillingly and with no expectations on the wet Sandymount Strand when the tide is out.

But when you have long forgotten many other fictional lovers, there is something about Addie and Bruno, their past and their world, that will not go away.


Maeve Binchy’s most recent book, Full House, is published in the Quick Reads series by Orion